Though I have, by now, spent years exploring Spain—having seen most of the major sights, done most of the deeds, eaten most of the comestibles, and drunk most of the potables—there still remain some corners of the country that have escaped my notice. In the summer of 2021, one of these was Alicante, the second largest city in the province of Valencia. With a bit of spare time on my hands, I set about to remedy this.

The fast train from Madrid deposited me in Alicante early in the morning. My first impression of the city was rather uninspiring. Like many Spanish cities—particularly great tourist destinations on the Mediterranean, of which there are many—the city had a generic look, consisting of medium-sized white or gray apartment blocks looming over streets full of cafés.

I made my way to one of these establishments for a much-needed coffee, and quickly fell under the charm of a busy Spanish café, full of chattering abuelas and well-dressed abuelos reading their newspapers. This older generation was accompanied, as is usual, by several grandchildren, who sat in the chairs with their legs hanging off the ground, their mouths stained with chocolate pastries.

After killing some time this way, I went to the Airbnb, which was a spare room in the apartment of a retired British man. It is quite common (or it was, before Brexit) for English retirees to move to Spain. It is considerably cheaper than the UK, to say nothing of the weather. This particular Brit struck me as very happy in his new home. He mentioned a local girlfriend, and his apartment was full of large photographs he had taken on his travels around the world. I particularly remember one of a mountain he had climbed in China.

“Of course, I’m not stupid,” he said. “I used the proper equipment to climb it.”

I do not think even the most generous traveler could argue that there is very much to do in Alicante. Indeed, sightseeing struck me as contrary to the spirit of the city. It is, rather, a place to relax—preferably, on the beach, or perhaps sitting at a nice café and eating ice cream. But I am not very good at that sort of thing. Besides, I have found that sitting on the beach by yourself—as I was—can invite melancholic thoughts. So I resolved to keep myself reasonably busy.

As with many Spanish cities, Alicante was built around a naturally defensible location. In this case, it was Mount Benacantil (the name comes from Arabic), a rocky hill that looms over the city. This elevation has proven to be such an advantageous feature that humans have been inhabiting it since at least the bronze age. But the castle, as it currently exists, has its roots in the Moorish period of Spanish history. It was captured by Christian forces in 1248 and thereafter dubbed Santa Bárbara, and during the many wars since that time it has been bombarded by the French and occupied by the English—not to mention, used as a concentration camp by Franco.

Approaching the Castle of Santa Bárbara

The walk up to the castle was a bit tiring, but it takes you through the small historical center of Alicante—where the generic streets below give way to the intimate sprawl of medieval living. Despite its bloody past, the castle struck me as a tranquil place. There really is not much to see aside from the old walls; but the views of Alicante and the sea beyond are worth the trek.

Now, at this point I must mention something which has absolutely nothing to do with Alicante. On my way up to the castle I started to feel a sharp pain in my left ear. The sensation was not emanating from deep within my ear, as in an earache. Instead, the outer part of my ear was throbbing as if somebody had hit it. It hurt to turn my head and to touch it. I had to take out my headphones, and wearing a mask (this was 2021, after all) was agonizing.

I was naturally afraid that I had gotten an ear infection. But my symptoms did not seem to fit. Thankfully, the pain subsided after about an hour. In the years since this trip, however, my left ear has periodically flared up with this same painful sensation. There are weeks when it hurts almost constantly, and months when it doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve been to four doctors, but none of them have been able to shed light on the matter. They’ve mostly just assured me that there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with any part of my ear. Still, it is rather annoying. If anybody reading this perchance has any idea what it might be, let me know.

With my ear still aching, I decided to visit the Archaeological Museum. I was immediately struck by the size and grandeur of the building, which seemed almost excessive for a regional museum. This large, multi-winged structure was actually first constructed as a hospital with multiple wards. The archaeology museum, though founded back in 1932, was not moved here until the year 2000, by which time the hospital had been shut down. (Before this, the museum occupied a space in the Provincial Palace.) As a result of this architectural inheritance, Alicante’s Archaeological Museums is among the largest museums in the country—at least in terms of floorspace.

Once I walked inside, I found that the museum’s collection was also quite impressive—both in terms of quality and quantity. With more than 80,000 pieces, the collection spans prehistory to the modern period; and this extensive treasury is displayed in a series of attractive exhibits, along with audiovisual supplements. There are even a series of large-scale models of major archaeological sites that you can walk through. As I have said before, provincial museums in Europe can often be surprisingly good—and this is yet another example of this general rule. My ear even felt better by the time I finished my visit. 

By now it was lunch time, and I wanted to try that most iconic of Valencian dishes: paella. Luckily, quite near the museum is a well-known restaurant called Racó del Pla which specializes in the savory rice. I believe that the place is normally booked solid. Fortunately for me, however, I was given a seat at a high table near the door. I was disheartened to find the smallest amount of paella on the menu was to share between two people. But some skillful begging on my part convinced the waiter to let me order a personal paella. It was among the best I’ve ever had.

This fairly well does it for my sightseeing in Alicante. But before I move on to Tabarca, I wanted to include a note on language. If you know any Spanish, you will probably notice that there are many signs and advertisements in Alicante which don’t seem to be in Castilian. Indeed, the very name of the city is sometimes written as Alacant. This is the Valencian language—more commonly known as Catalan. It is curious to note that, although the same language is spoken here, and although there is a strong regional culture, there is virtually no talk of Valencian separation. Regional Spanish politics is complicated.

The Island of Tabarca

The most popular day trip from Alicante is to the island of Tabarca, which is an hour away by ferry. Tabarca is rather small, with a permanent population of about 50. Most of the year, the primary activity is fishing; but in summer the island is overrun with tourists.

That included me. After booking my ferry ticket online, I walked along the attractive promenade beside the Mediterranean until I got to the dock. The ferry was medium-sized (maybe big enough for 120 people), with two decks. I decided that I would enjoy the views from the top.

The boat rumbled into life and we began our journey.

My attention was immediately arrested by a massive wooden boat that was moored in the city port. This is actually a replica of the famous Spanish galleon, the Santísima Trinidad—the biggest ship of its time, which held 130 canons. It was called the Escorial of the Sea, and was understandably the pride of the Spanish navy. But it was so large that it could not effectively sail during the Battle of Trafalgar (fought between the English fleet and a combined French and Spanish force), and was captured and eventually sunk near Cádiz.

The Santísima Trinidad, with the Castle of Santa Bárbara in the background.

This replica is even more cumbersome than its namesake, since it was never designed to sail at all. Rather, it was meant as a kind of floating tourist attraction—complete with a museum and a restaurant. It was moored in the port of Málaga from 2006 to 2011, when the owner decided that an offer from the city of Alicante seemed more profitable. It was a major attraction in this city until 2017, when the ship suffered a reverse of fortune. That year, it was bought by a company which planned on bringing it to Benidorm. But for whatever reason the entrepreneurs thought better of the idea, and ultimately left this floating hulk to rot in a corner of the port. It was still there in 2021 when I visited.

So much for the flagship of the Spanish armada. Meanwhile, my little ferry did not seem to be faring much better. As soon as the boat reached the open waters, we began to rock side to side from the current. I was surprised by this, since it was hardly a windy day and the seas did not look at all choppy. The problem was that we were traveling south, while the tide was coming in from the east, thus turning the hull into a kind of sail.

The constant swaying, while at first merely annoying, began to be truly distressing about half an hour into the journey. My stomach began to protest at the churning. I did my best to focus on something else, which helped a little. But when people around me began to vomit, this became understandably fairly difficult. By the time that Tabarca came into view, I was covered in sweat and doubled over in pain. My first step onto dry land filled me with relief.

One of the many ferries approaching the island.

But the trauma of the journey faded quickly when confronted with the beauty of this small Mediterranean island. Tabarca has the profile of a melted dumbbell, the two parts connected by a narrow strip of beach in the middle. Virtually all of the human dwellings are on the smaller of these parts. It is quite an attractive little town, though one would be hard pressed to say there is very much to see or do. I contented myself with wandering around and enjoying the different views of the sea and the coast of Spain, until it was time for lunch. This was, of course, seafood—something the Spanish can be relied upon to do well.

After this, I decided to walk around the other, uninhabited half of the island. This is a strangely beautiful and barren landscape of rocks and grass, seagulls perpetually flying overhead. With no obstacles to break the wind, I was buffeted by strong gusts that almost made me shiver on the hot summer day. Yet there is something both exciting and calming about the roar of waves and the rush of wind. I spent an hour just sitting on a rock and enjoying it.

One of the few structures to be found in this part of the island is an imposing square building, called the Tower of San José. This is just one of the many defensive structures which have been built on the island over the centuries. A plaque in the city informed me that this was the site of the execution of 19 Carlist sergeants in 1838, during the so-called Carlist Wars (between factions supporting different claimants to the Spanish throne). They were executed, apparently, as a reprisal for a similar execution of prisoners on the Carlist side.

In any case, I was surprised at the tone of the commemorative plaque, which calls them “martyrs” and proclaims Don Carlos V the “legitimate” king of Spain. For one, Carlos lost the war and never became king. What is more, Carlism is associated with the most fanatically conservative parts of the political spectrum. Pretty heavy stuff for 1996, which is when the plaque was installed.

When you are lucky enough to travel to a place as lovely as Tabarca, it is pretty rich to say that you have “regrets.” Nevertheless, I do wish I had tried snorkeling in the crystalline waters around the island. This area is a “marine reserve” and is considered to be one of the best places for both snorkeling and scuba diving in the country. As somebody who has never done anything similar, I can only imagine how fun it must be to swim amongst the sea life.

Now it was time for the ferry ride back. Dreading the seasickness, this time I figured that I would stay on the lower level, as close to the middle of the boat as possible. My thinking was that this would be the part of the boat which would experience the least movement, in the same way that the best place to avoid turbulence on an airplane is over the wings.

The boat began its journey and my confidence quickly evaporated. If anything, the swaying was worse than before, and this time I had no view to distract me. Instead, I put on an audio book (one by David Attenborough) and stared at the floor. My own physical discomfort was manageable this way—at least for about twenty minutes. But I began to feel real distress when the vomiting started. It was, to say the least, difficult to ignore. The ship’s crew were running back and forth with white paper bags, as the people two rows up, to my left, to my right, and finally right next to me, all began to wretch into these bags. By about 45 minutes into the ride, over half of the passengers had lost their lunch. In retrospect, it was amazing that I did not smell anything.

But the sight alone of all this sickness was strangely contagious. My stomach twisted itself into a tighter knot. Sweat covered my whole body. I curled my fingers into fists and buried my head in my arms, trying to block out my surroundings. When I could not see anything, the swaying actually did not seem too bad. Yet I did not have the discipline to remain like that. I would look up and, when I did, would inevitably witness another victim.

Finally, I decided to get up and walk up to the prow. Here the wind felt like ice and water continually splashed up onto the deck. This cold air was, however, exactly what I needed: I snapped out of the sick feeling and was able to enjoy the final approach to Alicante.

You may think that after such an ordeal, the last thing I would want to do was eat. Yet I had seen a ramen shop that intrigued me that morning, and I arrived back in Alicante just in time to get a table (there was a queue forming even before it opened). Thus, I concluded my final day exploring Alicante hunched over a bowl of hot noodles. And that is certainly the mark of a good vacation.

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